Example Of Learning Theories Research Paper

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Learning, Theory, Instruction, Behaviour, Children, Family, Education, Breastfeeding

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/10/28

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Leaning is an inherently complex process, potentially shaped by genetics, the environment and numerous other factors that learners have little control over. The behavioural and cognitive-constructivist theories conceive the learning process different, with the former emphasizing behavioural adaptation to environmental stimuli, while the latter argues that learning occurs through active interaction with the environment. With the rapid advancements in varied fields including education, biotechnology, medicine and nursing, evidence is constantly emerging on the strengths and weaknesses of each of these theories, but above all, on the complex nature of the human brain and learning. I chose these two theories because they emphasize the extreme ends of the nature versus nurture debate, which remains immensely relevant in learning and development. Additionally, these theories are easily very influential on individual educational and nursing practitioners, which render it important to understand them better (Wood, 1998; Porter, 2006). This paper includes brief descriptions and comparative analysis of both these theories, followed by empirical and theoretical evidence of their application and relevance, followed by an examination of how I intend to apply them in my practice as a nurse.

Behavioural and Sociocultural Learning Theories

The behavioural learning theory places emphasis on the conscious, observable, explicit and measureable aspects of a behaviour, and asserts that learning only occurs when such behaviour is altered. Learning is therefore, equivalent to the successful acquisition of modelled behaviour, achieved through classical and operant conditioning. Driscoll (2000) refers to learning as the persistent or sustained modification potential or performance resulting from interaction and experience with one’s environment. This theory arose from efforts to derive general behaviour and learning laws by scholars including Hull, Spence, Thorndike and Pavlov in the early 1900s and late 1800s. This period was characterized by instruction-based learning, with no formal learning theories. Pavlov was born in a central Russian village in 1849, with Darwinism driving him study physiology and chemistry, instead of theology, which in turn set in him on a path to extensive research and experimentation.
Pavlov’s animal experimentation drew together the principles of reflexology and associationism, establishing the existence of a reflexive reaction set by association and thus the emergence of classical conditioning. Subsequent behaviourists including Skinner and Piaget asserted that sciences such as psychology was centred around learning, predicting and controlling observable behaviour as against understanding consciousness. They argued that learners gained knowledge through their exposure to the conditioning environment, which is why manipulating environmental consequences and antecedents can control and shape behaviour. This theory has found application in behavioural modification, classroom and instruction management. In behavioural modification, contingency management is applied to children with difficult behaviours and problems such as hyperactivity, inattention, and poor temperament, which can be modified through positive reinforcement. Similar reinforcements may be used in classrooms to foster good behaviour and learning, with contingency contracts and personalized instruction serving as perfect way to shape learners’ behaviour (Wood, 1998; Driscoll, 2000).
On the other hand, Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory asserted that could be best understood through the developmental process and the sociocultural context of the learner. Also born in Russia, Vygotsky was a psychologist, whose theories were hugely controversial in his native Russia up until the 1970s. Vygotsky found a new link among language, learning, education and development, which shows that children’s learning is far from a spontaneous process dependent on maturation. Humans learn from their active interactions with their respective environments, with all their cultural functions occurring twice i.e. firstly between people, and then within the individual. Language and other sociocultural influences in learning are highlighted by Chomsky, whose experiments show that language development has little to do with grammar, but the mastery of cultural symbols and cues to meaning (e.g. situational factors, stress and intonation), which collectively create language.
According to this theory, there is a complex relationship between learning and development, influenced by the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is a developmental stage that lies between a child’s independent activity and the level that they can reach when they are given support. Effectively, when children interact with people who are more knowledgeable e.g. adults and instructors, they can reach a high level of understanding compared to when they learn independently, but learning may only occur if the children have reached a level at which they can understand. Effectively, teaching five-year-old complex nursing theories is useless, because such knowledge is higher than their ZPD can allow them to learn. Vygotsky asserted that instructors can help children in their learning by identifying their ZPD and level of assisted performance, before nudging them. In addition, learning occurs best with peer instruction, scaffolding and collaboration as against simply structured instruction.
There is a major difference between these two theoretical extremes. The behaviourist theories see learners as simply driven by external stimuli/motivation, while Vygotsky theory sees learners as being intrinsically motivated to learn, and do so by actively processing the stimuli in their environments. Vygotsky dismissed behaviourist assertions that children’s behaviour may be modified through instruction at any time of their life, arguing that different learning occurs at different times. Recent behaviourist theorists such as Piaget incorporated this aspect of Vygotsky argument, by providing a step-by-step learning process. According to Piaget, while children learn by actively constructing and assimilating information in their environment using their natural capacity to do so, it is possible that their cultural and social environments play a critical role. Piaget’s four-step cognitive development theory attempts to reconcile Piagetian theory to the behaviourist learning theories.
In regard to the two theories’ application to nursing education, both theories have a central role. Firstly, it is not difficult to envisage the role of direct instruction in helping nursing students understand complex concepts. Lecturers and tutors are often there to explain and provide clarifications, set and mark examinations, which is important in learning. Similarly, factors such as getting excellent grades and potentially landing a great job in the future serve as conditioning stimuli to learners to work hard in order to attain good results. However, learning at an advanced level is more driven by the student than it is by instructors. As long as the instructors scaffold them according to their ZPD, at this advanced age, they must have an intrinsic motivation and capacity to master different concepts of nursing. Extensive reading and research are important not only in college, but perhaps most importantly in actual nursing practice. With the rising importance of evidence-based practice, the success of a nursing practitioner today is dependent on their ability to continually learn from their own, and other practitioners’ experiences (Goodnough, 2006; Wood, 1998).
It is evident that both behaviourist and cognitive-constructivist theories of learning remain relevant in modern learning and instruction. Personally, however, it appears as if the behaviourist theories are more relevant to children’s learning as against learning at this level. I think children learn more through instruction, especially since they have a diminished capacity to conduct their own research and evaluate complex information. However, at an advanced level of learning, I believe there is so much to learn and inadequate time for instruction. Learning at this, and more advanced levels is dependent on own research and understanding of different aspects of the course, driven by intrinsic motivation as against external stimuli.


Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction(2nd ed). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Goodnough, K. (2006). Enhancing Pedagogical Content knowledge Through Self-study: An Exploration of Problem-based Learning. Teaching in Higher Education Vol11, No.3, 301-318.
Porter, L. (2006). Behaviour In Schools. Buckingham: Open University Press.
Wood, D. (1998). How Children Think and Learn (2nd edition). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

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